Thanksgiving Day, 2015. The last Thursday in November starts in the usual way, for France and ourselves – we’re not doing anything special for this holiday. Catherine’s off to school by 8:30, and I’ve got about two hours before I need to go to the train station. My brain feels full, I’m not really in the holiday mood. I’m behind on my writing and in addition this month’s journal for the website was supposed to be an interview with the owner of the Le Ambassade de Vin – the local wine store, but I missed the interview (my fault), that’s going to have to wait for another time. Moreover our friends and neighbors, the Baldaccinis (Franck, Mira, and Mateo who is Catherine’s age) are leaving. Our friend Franck was one of four managers chosen from several hundred applicants to be a manager for his company in Moscow. The money and benefits are good, and after three years there, he’ll have his choice on where he wants to work. In preparation for the job he is learning Russian (I guess I shouldn’t complain about learning French, which is relatively easier). Annie and Mira were close, and Mateo and Catherine were inseparable, But today they are leaving La Garde, and tomorrow they fly out of Nice. And their departure has us also thinking and working on leaving France.
Add to this the ISIS terrorist attack in Paris was last Friday, and life in France’s second biggest city, Marseille, where I go to four days a week, has been edgy and strained. At the train station in Marseille the normal patrol of three gendarmes with automatic weapons has been doubled to six. In any crowded and enclosed space, the metro or the train, there’s the invariable looking around to see who is getting on, and if anyone is carrying an oversize bag. The atmosphere in the city is subdued, watchful.
All this is on my mind as I leave our house and walk to the train station and around 11:00 pause on the railroad overpass – the pedestrian bridge that spans the train tracks – to take in the view. At the Gare de La Garde the north side of the tracks, where the station building is, is the platform where you catch trains to Hyeres, Nice, Italy, and other points East. The trains traveling west – to Toulon, Bandol, Marseille, Spain – requires crossing over the tracks via the bridge. There’s a nice view there: of the chalky peak over by Hyeres, of the ridge line by Le Pradet, beyond which is the Mediterranean, and looking north, my favorite, the peak of Coudon.
I think about going into Marseille, wondering if anything will happen when I’m there. Statistically, of course, I’m quite safe: the odds of anything happening are quite remote. Still, life is random, despite our best efforts: we have medical care and pharmaceuticals; we have laws, which sometimes but don’t always keep us from acting on our baser instincts; we have air bags and tamper proof bottle caps; we have vaccines for ourselves and our computers. Still, brooding and melancholy set in: the universe is random, and we’re more exposed than we think we are. What if this or that or the other thing happens? This way of thinking does no good, but I’m not one to stop. I finally arrive at the penultimate question that plagues us all: if it had been a different egg or sperm, would I still be me?
On the bridge that crosses the train tracks the view is excellent: light shines down from the clear blue sky; it’s cold for here and the mistral is blowing, so the air is so dry your lips shrink as they shrivel in the cold dry evaporation. But looking at the yellow, late Autumn light on the buildings and the rocky hills, the dry air makes distinct and sharp every detail close and far: the texture of the stucco train station, the trees on the ridge line, the crevices of the distant rocks, all clear and in relief, and some of the Angst begins to evaporate.
The 11:14 train arrives at 11:23, it’s nearly empty and I sit on the upper deck of the first car. The Mediterreanean is on the left side of the train travelling towards Marseille. At times we are quite close to the water, especially after Toulon, near La Seyne sur Mer – there are no boats out, no swimmers, no one on the beach. The water is blue, again that blue, so wonderful.
For the past three weeks, four days a week I take the train to Marseille for three hours of French classes at the Alliance Française in the rue Paradis. After almost five years here I’m finally getting around to formally learning the language. But truth be told it’s not because we are planning to stay in France – au contraire. Rather, some demonstrable level of French proficiency will make it easier for us to become residents of Quebec. There’s a bit of irony in all this in that when I was entering high school, ninth grade (my middle and high school were the same school), I had a choice of either continuing Latin for one more year (I already had two years), thereby completing my foreign language requirement, or starting anew with either French or Spanish, and having to put in another two years. Having no desire to speak a foreign language nor start a new one, I chose the Latin route, and just barely made it through Mr. Leslie Jones’s Latin III. But life is funny: several years later, at a drinking event in Innsbrücke, I decided that once I started at the university I should study German, and as things happened, in addition to German I also took another two semesters of Latin. Verrückt!
Past Bandol, where the best and most expensive rosé comes from, there is a view across the bay, the Baie de la Ciotat, to some rock formations of Cap de l’Aigle, whose shape is a variation on another form that sits over water, the Sydney Opera House. Speaking of rosé, Tony and I should collaborate on a book about this under appreciated wine (at least in the United States). The books could be in the tradition of those other one topic non-fiction titles: Cod; Underwear – A Brief History; All About Amoebas, and Lithium: Battery, Drug, and Much Much More.
Walking out of the train station in Marseille, I came out on the terrace that has one of the best urban views ever: in the distance, up on a plateau dominating the city is the chuch Notre Dame de la Garde, at that time of day mostly in silhouette and shadow, the air between here and there grainy because of the proximity of the ocean, like a Fall view from Nepenthe in Big Sur looking south to where the Ventana Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean – blue and grey and white, a low ISO sort of grainy view that breaks your heart with its beauty.
Instead of taking the metro to French to the stop near the Alliance Française, I walk down the steps of the train station, down the Boulevard d’Athens, to go to Gilbert Joseph, the local papereterie, also a librarie ( stationary and bookstore in one – how good is that? indulge all your fetishes here), then walk down to the hole in the wall falafel place on the rue de Cananberies. I don’t find anything worth buying at Gilbert Joseph, but at the falafel place (not as good as the Falafel Drive-In in San Jose) the falafel wrapped in a galette, a sort of flour tortilla, with harissa sauce is pretty good.
The French classes have given structure to my days. In the old days I went to a job at a company and that was the framework of that day. When I left all that, I was on my own, no commute or job anyone expecting anything. As an aspiring writer, it was just me and my computer, the blank page. The complete freedom was new, and daunting. Dave Barry, who among other things has written one of the funniest travel books ever, said this about being a writer:
The hardest part about being a writer is that you don’t ever have to do it. You’re not going to a factory. There’s no time clock. It’s just you and your computer, and you could walk away at any time and make a peanut butter sandwich or 10. The best way to deal with that is to not have peanut butter in your home. The truth is the fundamental discipline that is just as important as any specific writing skill, and that is the discipline of sitting down and doing it. That’s where most people fail at becoming a professional writer.
Class ends at 16:45, and after three hours of French I’m tired. I’m out the door quickly, a three block walk to the metro station to catch the red line/#2 to the train station – I can just make the 17:04 intercites train if it’s delayed a few minutes, otherwise I’ll have to wait for the 17:30 ter, which makes more stops. A long escalator up to the main station, which is an early evening hubub. It’s still cold, and all the stone and marble that make the train station cool in summer amplify the winter cold. Unfortunately the 17:04 train was on time, so while waiting for the next train, I turn to look out the doors of the train stations: the sun is low, about to go down, orange and red. G.K Chesterton wrote:
Here dies another day,
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands,
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
Of course. Family, friends; living in the south of France for almost five years; more ideas to write about than I have time for – just do what Dave said; piano and swimming and reading; champagne and reefer and Chekov and radio, and much much more.